Gary A. Kawamura
Psycho-Dada: The Art of Nothing
in the 20th Century
What motivates us to create art? It has been said that it is love, contact with the divine, muses, and many other things. It could be said that it is all of these and much more. In the last century the question of where art comes from has been discussed greatly and many theories of art have come about, among them being Marxist and Freudian. It was Freud who began the type of analysis known as psychoanalytic analysis. The 20th century has been described as a century fraught with trauma and disillusion. In the last century the field of psychology has been used to address such questions and issues of “why do we create art?”
Psychoanalytic criticism uses psychological theory to help explain and understand the artist or artists and their motivations for their creation. In the book Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Cathy Caruth describes trauma as being cyclical: a process by which the person receiving the trauma has the initial experience with the trauma, interest and copes with it, and then possibly reaching the final stage of catharsis whereby the trauma is transmitted to another person (3-11). The implications of this cycle of trauma for art are that it helps to shed light on the implicit metaphors and allusions which come from the artist’s subconscious. In talking about the final transmission phase of the traumatic cycle Caruth says, “It is the fundamental dislocation implied by all traumatic experience that is both its testimony to the event and the impossibility of its direct access” (9). Essentially, Caruth is saying that the remoteness and difficulty people have in expressing their trauma not only illustrates the impact of the traumatic event, but also how difficult it is for the traumatized to see the event. It is this impossibility of retelling traumatic experiences which leads them to manifest themselves as allusions and metaphors as described earlier. Certainly art, music, and literature are all ways in which the transmission of trauma can occur and can be more helpful in relaying experiences which are outside the realm of human experience. Freud, in his research on dreams finds the same occurrence of metaphor and allusion in dream-symbolism which comes from the sub-conscious (27). These repressed traumas which manifest themselves in the sub-conscious and dreams also show up in art.
The Dada art movement protested World War I as well as challenging many conventional norms of behavior and aesthetics. Some of the art, poetry, and discourses of this movement were clearly a reaction to the dehumanization and death brought about in the early parts of the 20th century. In a diary entry, Hugo Ball, a founding Dada artist from Germany writes, “The Dadaist fights against the death-throes and death-drunkenness of his time” (247). It seems that the Dada artists were trying to challenge the thinking and rationale in the world which had let to this terribly violent war. Certainly their ideologies and anti-war stance manifested itself in the art these Dadaists created, however, there is certainly a more implicit presence in these creations, a result of the trauma collectively felt, as a result of the war. By taking a look at Dada art pieces with a psychoanalytic eye focusing on trauma and the traumatic cycle, a better understanding can be gained about not only the pieces but also the artists who created them, and their movement.
The very absurd pieces by Marcel Duchamp, titled Bicycle Wheel and Fountain, are essentially what the names depict. The bicycle wheel is a wheel attached to the seat of a stool; the “fountain” is in fact a urinal. So what, if anything, does this reveal about the artist, the pieces, and trauma? To look at these pieces with a psychoanalytical eye, one must not simply look at the artists’ intentions, but look to see what they did not intend to do or say. Certainly, Duchamp’s goal was to shock and dismay the critics while at the same challenge the notions of what art is. So how could these pieces be seen as a metaphor for the trauma experienced on the early part of the 20th century? In both of these pieces there seems to be a lack of anything organic. One could almost say that there is nothing in these pieces which certainly coincides with the Dada artists seeming nihilistic philosophy. From these two pieces it does not seem possible to differentiate between intended and subconscious manifestations in that, in a sense, the artist did not really create these pieces. This fact in of itself seems to follow in the ways of Dada art.
Perhaps a more personally created piece would help to reveal more about the artist’s personal psyche. German Dada artist, Max Ernst made a piece titled Ein Kupferblech, which translates to a “copper metal sheet.” The name of Ernst’s piece, once translated, seems to shed little or no light on exactly what the piece depicts which follows in the Dada way. Initial feelings from the piece seem quite relevant to understanding the psychology behind it. It seems that the piece has two figures, certainly not human, and it would be difficult to prove that they are figures at all, they could almost be robotic. There seems to be a definite fear that comes from looking at the pictures open space and giant, seemingly robotic figures. There are clearly elements of machinery and metal in the figures as well. Ernst seems to be trying to convey isolation and dehumanization where there are no people present, nothing in the picture is palpable to the eye, no recognition. The piece seems to have an air of fear and isolation in the face of nothing. These feelings would coincide very well with the coming of irrationalist and existential thought where man is alone and there is no god. Though Ernst may have been trying to contest war and notions of what should be it seems to go further in conveying feelings of disillusionment and isolation in the face of death.
Another medium which Dada artists used was poetry. This medium allowed the poet to express feelings verbally; often, Dada poets wrote in a stream of consciousness style in a trance-like state (Schemool). American poet Kurt Schwitters, in his poem, Perhaps Strange, writes about farm animals and dairy products. Schwitters writes, “The world is full of goods trains/ The passengers are cows/ And milk and butter” (lines 1-3). It seems possible that Schwitter could be writing about people being like animals and dairy products. Equating people to such trivial things could be a reading of this poem which would continue with the themes of dehumanization in dada art. Schwitter, in the last lines of his poem writes, “Isn’t it strange?/ It is” (lines 14-15). These last lines seem to pronounce Schwitter¹s view of everything as being absurd. Following with the dada school, Schwitter seems to be expressing nothing other than the fact that he finds everything so strange. Subconsciously, Schwitter may be expressing a feeling or pain of nothing, perhaps disillusionment.
Initially, there seems to be a very clear and identifiable pattern in the numerous forms of Dada art. Themes of isolation, fear and disillusionment very frequently show themselves in these works, likely a product of the artists’ reactions to World War I and its terrifying onslaught. The label of being nihilists placed on Dada artists by critics does really seem to ring true when looking at the art that they created. An over-powering theme in the Dada pieces seems to be nothingness. The art seems to assert that there is indeed nothing, man is not a moral agent, and there is no god. Hugo Ball, a dada artist in Germany wrote, “What we call dada is a harlinquinade made of nothingness in which all higher questions are involved” (246). This nothingness which Ball speaks of seems to hint to a larger, perhaps more implicit issue being based in destruction. The dada artists seem to have felt the shock and horror of World War I and found themselves in a world of uncertainty and surrealism. Dada art seems to speak to the destruction of the seemingly blissful life before World War I. Essentially, these artists are painting, writing, and sometimes creating nothing because that is what they feel inside. It seems as though the slate of humanity has been wiped blank by this catastrophic war; this very seemingly confused dada art tries to convey the feelings of uncertainty and horror brought about by war.
The Dada movement could be seen as a part of a kind of enlightenment of the early 20th century where everything is uncertain and open for scrutiny and questioning. Certainly the Dada artists challenged conceptions about what art is with their shocking displays like Duchamp’s Fountain, a piece he simply acquired, put his name on, and put on display in a gallery. Dada art can be seen as an art coinciding with irrationalist and nihilistic thought in the early 20th century where it seemed to many that there was no point to anything. The Dada artists were the first in the 20th century to really challenge and question notions about what art was and in doing this they set a new way that art was created and thought of; eventually giving rise to surrealism. This Dada, this nothingness and praise of it was an art born out of the traumas of war, dehumanization, and mechanization which has changed how people both analyze and interpret art to current day.
Ball, Hugo. “Dada Fragments.” Art in Theory 1900-1990. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Cambridge: Blackwell Pub., Inc., 1993. 246-253.
Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Duchamp, Marcel. Bicycle Wheel. Georges Pompidou Center, Paris. 1913.
Duchamp, Marcel. Fountain. Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris. 1917.
Ernst, Max. Ein Kupferblech. 1919-1920.http://www.peak.org/~dadaist/Art/index.
Freud, Sigmund. “On Dreams.” Art in Theory 1900-1990. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Cambridge: Blackwell Pub., Inc., 1993. 26-34.
Schemool, Allon. “Dada Poetry.” Dada Poetry. 1996.http://www.geocities.com/allon_art/dadapoetry.
Schwitters, Kurt. Perhaps Strange.http://www.peak.org/~dadaist/English/Graphics/perhaps.